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What It's Like To Be Surrounded By Death Every Day

A funeral home owner and an embalmer on EJK, moving corpses, and why we need not fear the Reaper
by Maan D'Asis Pamaran | Oct 29, 2016

It is a quiet street somewhere south of the Metro, the funeral home’s white building stands modestly among a smattering of small businesses, a carinderia on the left, a sari sari store somewhere down a path. We were told to wait for Luna Osmeña, the funeral home’s owner at a reception area where we look through a list of their clients and where they lie in state.

Luna drives up and meets us, asking, “Are you ready to see the embalming area?” The station in question is somewhere along the side of the building, street level, and separated from prying eyes by a pink floral curtain. “They are expecting a body sometime later today. It’s a good thing you came in first. The room is cleaned and sanitized regularly but there is really something in this place, a kind of odor that never really goes away and sticks to your hair and clothes. I advise you to take a bath as soon as you get home.”

She carefully draws the curtain to reveal an old-fashioned white-tiled room. What immediately draws the eye is the shiny metal rectangular table, with a wooden block placed just so. This is where the dead are brought for their final preparations, we were told. The table has a faucet at the head and a large drain at the bottom.

A living out of death

We are introduced to Richard, their embalmer, a tallish, thin man who looks as if he was fresh from the barber’s. If you meet Richard in the streets, you would not think that his hands touch the dead. He has a small, quiet voice and a rather shy demeanor, but his hands work fast as he lays down his tools of the trade, explaining the use of the different-sized forceps, a large metal syringe, and probably the most unnerving of the group, a long rubber hose through which formalin flows to replace the blood that previously circulated to supply life to limbs.

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'If you meet Richard in the streets, you would not think that his hands touch the dead. He has a small, quiet voice and a rather shy demeanor, but his hands work fast as he lays down his tools of the trade, explaining the use of the different-sized forceps, a large metal syringe, and probably the most unnerving of the group, a long rubber hose through which formalin flows to replace the blood that previously circulated to supply life to limbs'

There was no mistaking what the wooden block is for. It supports the dead's head and neck, as Richard, and the others of his trade, piece through the artery along the neck to drain the blood out.

We ask about the yellow disposable razor that found its way into the chilling array, Richard replies matter-of-factly, “I use it to shave the men, to help them look good.”

He has a makeup kit, too, the products are Mac, as Osmeña says with some measure of pride. “It’s called panstick, the same kind they use on stage shows, because it offers a longer lasting coverage,” she explains. There are different shades, to suit different skin tones.

Luna is right about the odor permeating the room. It wasn’t a palpable chemical smell; it was, as she described, a smell that pierces through to the brain and would take more than a bath to wash away.

Richard says he was once a factory worker at the Export Processing Zone, but his uncle, who was already working at a different funeral home encouraged him to take up the trade. He has had a certification from a course offered somewhere in Quezon City, the studies focused on the human anatomy.

Mas secure na trabaho ito, kaysa sa factory. Dalawang taon ko na ito ginagawa, nung una, natatakot ako, medyo nandidiri, pero ngayon, sanay na ako.” He is not afraid of ghosts and has had no supernatural experiences, he says. “Sa ganitong linya ng trabaho, masasabi ko talaga, mas matakot ka sa buhay, kaysa sa patay.”

One encounter he could not forget was the time one of his corpses started having spasms. “It was at my former employment,” he says. A heart attack patient, declared dead at the hospital, suddenly started shuddering on their work table. “Tatlo kaming staff kailangan na humawak. Hinintay namin siyang tumigil sa pag galaw bago namin ginawa ang trabaho namin. Buti na lang sarado yung kwarto at hindi nakita ng pamilya nung namatay, kung hindi baka nagwala ang mga yun kasi iisipin nila na buhay pa tinatrabaho na namin.”

He assures that the man was really dead, though, and episodes like those do happen on occasion. “Kaya ngayon, kapag atake sa puso, naghihintay muna ako ng mga six hours para siguradong hindi na gagalaw.”

Luna recounts an urban legend in their area. “My late dad established this funeral home in the ‘70s. One time, a man hit by lightning was brought in, presumed dead. He came back to life just as the embalmer was about to work on him!”

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She says that the scenario is unlikely to happen these days, as there has to be a certification from an attending physician that the person is really dead before he or she is brought to us.

Contrary to popular belief, all internal organs are intact when a person is laid to rest. Nothing is taken out, except the blood.

The only exceptions are when there was an autopsy performed by the Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) if the dead is a victim of a crime. Once the SOCO team is done, Richard tries to hide all the traces of the posthumous probe.

Nung isang araw may dinala ditong mga patay, inaagnas na, pinagnakawan tapos pinatay sila sa bahay nila tapos hindi naman nalaman agad ng mga kamag-anak. Kapag ganun, sinasaksakan ko na agad ng formalin para matigil ang pag agnas, tapos I try my best na takpan na lang yung nag-de-decompose gamit ang makeup. Inaayos ko lahat ng mga kliyente ko kasi dapat lang talaga na ang patay binibigyan pa rin ng respeto at ng magandang libing.”        

He himself has taken a practical approach to death when he started this job. “Naisip ko lang na lahat naman tayo mamamatay. Kesyo mayaman o mahirap ka. Pare-pareho lang tayo.”

For those left behind

Luna leads us to her office, a smallish affair that has a desk and several chairs. Talk comes around to the extrajudicial killings (EJK) happening in several parts of the country. She gives her opinion on that recent news discovery of a funeral parlor that has been found to hold nearly 200 bodies that are suspected to be of EJK victims.

“There are funeral parlors that have a contract with the SOCO, where the bodies of crime victims are brought to them. The large number of bodies may mean that the victims’ relatives are unaware of what happened to them, or are afraid to step up and claim the body for fear of being tagged on a hitlist themselves.”

Luna says that her second theory is as plausible as the first, as they have handled the wake and burial of a shooting victim from a drug-related incident. “It’s not completely verified if it’s indeed an EJK. All we know is that the person was shot on the street for a drug-related story. We noticed that few people attended the wake. According to the bystanders, it was because people were afraid to be affiliated with the dead person and be the next target. What a sad reality!”

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She muses that the wake and funeral rites are not really for the dead, but for those who are left behind. “It’s like their last glimpse, their send-off for their loved one who passed away. It is our job to give them room to grieve, where we take care of the details so they could focus on what matters most at the time.”  

'It's like their last glimpse, their send-off for their loved one who passed away. It is our job to give them room to grieve, where we take care of the details so they could focus on what matters most at the time' 

When taking care of the dead, they ensure that they are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. “We follow all protocols from the time we pick up the body to the deceased’s burial. We work closely with the deceased’s family to make sure that we cater to their needs, such as choice of coffin, type of music they want us to play in the funeral procession, flower arrangements, and burial ceremony.”

She adds that their clients are people come from different walks of life. “We believe that every person—regardless of their financial status or background in life—deserves a decent funeral. That includes being properly embalmed and prepared for a viewing, a casket, a wake (lamay) where friends and loved ones can pay their final respects, a necrological service (depending on the religion of the person), and a proper burial.”

She grew up sleeping in a room above the funeral chapels, thinking it was normal to live around death. This situation has given her a few realizations later on in life. “When we listen to the stories of the families left behind, it’s often filled with nostalgia, remorse, and longing, on top of the grief. Being surrounded by death on a daily basis makes us realize that life is fleeting. You never really know when it’s your time to go and how you will go. Nobody is ever prepared for death—even if you’re a terminally ill person who is counting your last few days on Earth.”

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'Being surrounded by death on a daily basis makes us realize that life is fleeting. You never really know when it's your time to go and how you will go. Nobody is ever prepared for death—even if you're a terminally ill person who is counting your last few days on Earth'

Even they were not emotionally prepared when their own loved ones passed away, she muses wistfully. “We’ve been in this business for so many years, but it’s different when it finally happens to you, when it’s someone you know and love who is lying in that coffin. Death catches everyone off-guard, even those who run funeral parlors.”

 

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